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Song of the Month: "So the Lord Is to Me"

When I was looking for inspiration for the songs that would become the TO PRAISE YOU collection, I ran across an old hymn text by Johannes Tauler (1300-1361). The text was a litany of images describing our relationship with God. It was so stunningly beautiful. As I allowed myself to reflect on each of the images, I felt my heart filing with gratitude for all that God is in my life. I hope this new adaptation of the Tauler text will bless your life as well.

Featured News

Earthen Vessels

Earthen Vessels Anniversary

2015 marks the 40th anniversary of Earthen Vessels, the St. Louis Jesuits landmark collection...
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To Praise You

To Praise You Collection

NEW! Released last summer, this is Dan's long-awaited recording of new songs for pilgrims...
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Mass of Christ the Savior

Mass of Christ the Savior

When it was announced that English speaking countries would soon receive a new translation of the...
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St. Louis Jesuits

St. Louis Jesuits

In recent years, the St. Louis Jesuits have done very few public performances. The invitations...
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You May Be Interested

  • 21st Century American Catholic

    A friend of mine in St. Louis recently made me aware of an inspirational new blog called "The 21st Century American Catholic Blog". I highly recommend you take a few minutes to explore and read Tony Massimini's amazing reflections.

    Tony was a young theologian studying at the Gregorian Institute in Rome during the first session of the Second Vatican council. He and other priest/scholars were enlisted to be scribes, secretaries and assistants to the bishops during their sessions. As such, he has firsthand experience of those days, of what went on and how the breath of the Holy Spirit blew through the Church and the hearts of the bishops.

    I should tell you that my favorite section of the blog is the "Vatican II: Then and Now" area. This is where Tony shares his firsthand experiences. It's hard for me to read these without being moved deeply. One of his recent posts relates how he ended up kneeling at the foot of the bed in John XXIII's private quarters as the body of the pope lay waiting to be buried. Tony also offers some thought-provoking reflections on the state of the Church today, of where the Spirit is moving and how a 21st Century American Catholic might respond.
  • Glory to God - To Refrain or Not Refrain

    The practice of altering the traditional form of the "Glory to God" to include a repeated refrain has been common for the past almost forty years. It arose in response to the renewed understanding of liturgy as being the work of the people, and that "full, conscious, active participation by the faithful is the aim to be considered above all else."

    While the "Glory to God" is a hymn intended to be sung by all the people, the through-composed text is neither strophic or antiphonal in nature. This makes it a very difficult for people in the pew to participate. Over the centuries many stirring musical settings of the "Glory to God" have been created, but most of them are intended to be performance pieces.

    And so, composers looked for musical ways to help a congregation to sing this hymn. One of those vehicles has been to include a repeated refrain that people can more readily learn, while letting the choir or cantor sing the rest of the text. When the people become familiar with the music of the verses, they can gradually begin to sing that as well.

    There are some that question this practice because it alters the original structure of the hymn, and because it lengthens the time it takes to sing. While some bishops may decide to restrict the singing of refrains during the "Glory to God," the USCCB continues to allow the practice of using refrains because they understand that congregational participation in this hymn is more important than adhering to the structure of the text. When setting the hymn with a repeated refrain, composers are not allowed to change the words of the text, but are permitted to repeat words or phrases to better fit the musical line.
  • Lamb of God - Adding Tropes

    I've received a few emails wondering about the verses, or tropes, of the "Lamb of God" setting I wrote for Mass of Christ the Savior. Historically, troping the "Lamb of God" text is a long and secure tradition in history, dating back to at least the 15th century. The practice has gone in and out of use during subsequent centuries.

    While the new Roman Missal seems to indicate the practice of using only the words in the Missal, the USCCB, in their "Sing to the Lord" instruction to liturgical musicians, explicitly suggests the use of tropes when the ritual of preparing the bread and cup for communion takes longer.

    In practice, some bishops in the US are allowing the use of tropes in their diocese, while others are specifically forbidding it. In matters such as this, the bishop of a diocese is the arbiter of all liturgical matters.

    However, all the Mass settings of the new Roman Missal text, including "Mass of Christ the Savior," had to be approved by the USCCB in order to be published in hymnals and missal programs. It seems the bishops of the United States wanted to allow for a variety of practices in the way we celebrate liturgy.
  • No More Yahweh

    The Vatican Congregation of Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments issued a directive explaining that the divine name "Yahweh" would no longer be used in the hymns and prayers of the Roman liturgy. Many of those sitting in the pew are not even aware of the new directive, but others are either thrilled or saddened by the news. As composer of one of the most "blogged-about" songs affected by this change, namely "You Are Near," I thought I might offer my own thoughts and give some history behind the singing of the name "Yahweh.”

    I composed “You Are Near” in 1970 as a very young, twenty-two year old, Jesuit-in-training. Just a few years earlier, the long-awaited Jerusalem Bible translation of sacred scripture was published. It first appeared in French, with the English version following in 1966. This translation was a direct response to the call of Pope Pius XII in 1943 for new translations of Sacred Scripture based on the original Hebrew and Greek texts. The JB was published as an official Roman Catholic translation, with full imprimatur, and it used the name "Yahweh" in both its original French, and subsequent English, translations.

    Along with many of my peers, I welcomed this new translation, found it readable and inspiring, and used it for my own prayer. It was because of the Jerusalem Bible that sacred scripture, especially the psalms, came alive for me in a way it never had before. The translation was "modern," in the best positive sense of that word, and connected with my soul when I came to pray. It was a logical step for me then to look first to this translation when I began setting scripture texts to music.

    As some may remember, the theologians and scripture scholars who prepared the Jerusalem Bible decided to use the name “Yahweh” to designate the tetragrammaton YHWH whenever it appeared in the original Hebrew text. This decision was surely not a frivolous one, but carefully thought out. In the end, they made the decision based on their desire to be most true to the original text. This, of course, is exactly the same reasoning being used recently by those “re-translating” the texts of the Mass so that they will be "true" to the original Latin.

    Here’s a short quotation from the Forward of the 1966 Jerusalem Bible: "It is in the Psalms especially that the use of the divine name Yahweh may seem unacceptable - though indeed the still stranger form Yah is in constant use in the acclamation Hallelu-Yah (Praise Yah!). It is not without hesitation that this accurate form has been used, and no doubt those who may care to use this translation of the Psalms can substitute the traditional "the Lord". On the other hand, this would be to lose much of the flavor and meaning of the originals."

    In other words, even in the Hebrew tradition, there are inconsistencies. While the name of “Yahweh” is never spoken aloud out of reverence and respect, still a shortened form of that same name is spoken and sung every time one sings the word “Alleluia.” Respect and Sensitivity In my reading of the recent Vatican directive, the Congregation is encouraging us to approach the language we use in liturgy with both respect and sensitivity. When I and other composers decided to use the name “Yahweh” in the texts of hymns, we based our choice in the scholarly work and judgment of those who fashioned the Jerusalem Bible. As mentioned earlier, the intention of these scholars was to be clear and true to the original Hebrew scripture texts, to offer a translation that would exhibit both the meaning and flavor of the original.

    Within a few years after the release of the Jerusalem Bible, many people became sensitive to the fact that our Jewish sisters and brothers might find our use of this name for God offensive. So after about 1973, you don’t find composers, including myself, using the name of “Yahweh” in our hymn texts.

    So the Vatican directive is really speaking to a practice initiated over thirty years ago. It's just that we've continued to sing those particular hymns. And some of them have become beloved favorites among men and women of Christian faith.

    Unless I'm reading it incorrectly, the directive from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments is inaccurate when it states that "Apart from a motive of a purely philological order, there is also that of remaining true to the Church's tradition, from the beginning, that the sacred tetragrammaton was never pronounced in the Christian context nor translated into any of the languages into which the Bible was translated." The Jerusalem Bible translation, mentioned above, did exactly that. And historically, the Jerusalem Bible was published as an official Roman Catholic translation, with full imprimatur, and used the name "Yahweh" in both its original French, and subsequent English, translation.

    What will this mean for some of the songs we sing. There are, of course, those who hope that the directive will mean the "death" of certain songs. For others, it feels like they’re losing an old friend. "You Are Near" is a good example of what I'm talking about. For many, many people, this hymn, based on Psalm 139 is one of their beloved favorites. I can tell you honestly, that of all the songs I’ve composed, I’ve gotten more letters and emails about this piece – people telling me how it helped them to pray when they couldn't, or sustained them through particularly difficult times, or helped them through their grieving, or accompanied them on their wedding day -- than I have for any other of my songs. I believe I owe these people an “official” revised text so they can continue to sing and pray a hymn they’ve loved for so long. If I don't, people will create their own revisions and communities will end up with many different ways of singing the piece.

    There are many factors I’ve taken into consideration to find the "right" new text. It’s not just a matter of plugging in the word “God” wherever “Yahweh” used to be sung. For one thing, there's the matter of these two words having a different number of syllables. To do a simple exchange of one word for the other would necessitate altering the timing of the musical notes.

    In addition to considering the meaning of the words, I tried to attend to the “sound” of the new text. In the case of “You Are Near,” for example, the original word “Yahweh” had no hard consonants in it and, therefore, could be sung gently, tenderly. There was an intimacy inherent in singing this name of God. But when I considered "Lord God" as a possible revision, it sounded harsh, most likely because it had many hard consonants. For me, the tender quality was very important to the prayerfulness of the piece, so I crossed that possibility off my list.

    Another possibility I considered was “O God.” But I realized that I couldn’t just plug it into the original notes because the accents would be misplaced. The first beat of a measure always gets a strong accent. That would mean that the “O” got the strong accent rather than the word “God," as would be the case in the speaking of those same words. As people sang this it would forever feel awkward and not quite “right.” I could be one of those subconscious musical "speed bumps" that distracts from the true prayerfulness of a piece.

    The last important challenge I faced was to find a revision that didn’t sound “patched.” This is music that many people have sung for most of their lives. After that amount of time, almost any change in lyric will feel new. But eventually I hope that people will "settle into" the new text. I didn't want it to forever remind folks that this song used to be "different."

    In some cases I jotted down pages of possibilities. As I narrowed the list, I spoke with trusted friends and colleagues to ask for their opinion. They were of tremendous help with their comments and encouragement. With so many things to consider, the solutions were not always easy to come by. I’m well aware that I cannot satisfy everyone’s sensitivities. But I took great care in the process.

    Genuine pastoral care requires more than just an announcement that we will no longer use the divine name of "Yahweh" in our songs. For many it’s just not enough to say we’ll do it because the Vatican congregation says so. They want to understand. Their faith, informed by reason, deserves an intelligent, thoughtful explanation. And even with careful catechesis, some will choose to continue to sing “You Are Near” just the way they have for the past 37 years. That is the way they know how to pray it. In addition, the Vatican directive only applies to liturgical use of these songs. In one’s personal prayer, in prayer groups and on retreats we are encouraged to use whatever translation of Sacred Scripture, and whatever form of these hymns, that help us to pray. See revised version.